Plane Can Fly Inches Over Water

While browsing Google Earth last year, some users saw an interesting sight at a naval base on a Chinese shore: runways heading directly into the ocean. Some people who may have seen such a landscape before might have questioned whether China was developing similar technology to that built by the Soviets during the Cold War, and nearly forgotten since.

On Tuesday, scientists from Tongji University in Shanghai announced that they had indeed designed a new model of the famous but largely unknown "wing-in-ground" (WIG) plane, Reuters reported. The plane, which can carry up to 4 metric tons (nearly 9,000 pounds), flies just 18 inches over the surface of the water, yet manages speeds of up to 180 mph.

To achieve these numbers, WIG planes use a technique called "ground effect" to achieve a high lift/drag ratio. Wings traveling close to the water (or ground) Ekanoplan LunEkanoplan Lunfeel an extra lift by a cushion of air compressed underneath them. This enables the planes to carry extremely heavy loads while using significantly less fuel--in the case of the Tongji plane, about half that of a similar vehicle.

The effect is not new, however. Even the Wright brothers, whose planes flew very low to the ground compared with today's models, took advantage of ground effect, though probably weren't aware of it. If you've ever noticed the speed a commercial plane feels to have just before it lands, that too is ground effect, caused by the air cushion trapped between the wings and the runway.

As I mentioned earlier, the Russians were the first to build WIGs, which they called "Ekranoplans" (or "screen planes"). Engineer Rostislav Evgenievich Alexeev of the Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau in Russia is credited as the lead designer of the 100-meter-long planes that could carry more than 1 million pounds at speeds of up to 250 mph.

It was the middle of the Cold War, however, and the Russians kept their invention secret. If anyone inquired about what these objects were, employees were instructed to say that they were floating stands for new high-speed boat engines. But the grandiosity and method of travel of these beasts inspired US spies at the time to refer to the strange forms as "Caspian Sea Monsters."

Although the Russians had plans to build 120 Orlyonok (or "Eaglet") Ekanoplan models, but ended up with just four in the late ‘70s. Although a good 80% of the size of a Boeing 747, the Orlyonok could fly for 2,000 km (1,200 miles) without landing. Sadly, one of these planes crashed and sunk, killing the entire crew. It still remains at the bottom of the sea. (But according to this review, it appears that you can still buy a 1:144 scale model of the plane.)

Challenges of WIG takeoffs and landingsChallenges of WIG takeoffs and landingsThe challenges faced by the Russians in mainstreaming this technology were faced by many of their followers. Perhaps most importantly, the immense amount of power required for planes when attempting to take off or land in the water, due to the large waves the planes create, was a problem. Engineers also faced challenges in implementing reliable automatic control systems, protecting against corrosive sea water, and protecting the engine air intake against bird strikes.

PelicanPelicanInterestingly, in 2002, Boeing was looking into building a gigantic WIG plane called the "Pelican." The company's goals are astounding: the plane would be 300 feet long with a 500-foot wingspan, fly 10 times the speed of cargo planes, carry 1.5 million pounds, and cover 10,000 nautical miles on a tank of fuel. Besides these plans, however, the Pelican is still in the works.

As for the scientists at Tongji University, they plan to develop a 50-seat WIG by 2013, with 200 prototypes capable of carrying 200 to 400 metric tons scheduled for 2016 or 2017. Military, commercial and even space uses could be in the future for WIG technology.

More general info: the WIG page.

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Lisa Zyga
Science Blogger

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Jul 14, 2007
by Anonymous (not verified)

Interesting article. Any

Interesting article. Any info on how much something like this will cost?

Jul 14, 2007
by Anonymous (not verified)

You meant 10 times the speed of a cargo ship

You say "fly 10 times the speed of cargo planes". You mean cargo ships.

Jul 14, 2007
by Lisa Zyga

Re: Cost

Since a manufacturing process has not been put in place, it's probably hard to estimate, especially if they have to hand-build them (without an assembly line). All I found on cost was a research thesis from 1994 by Monroe B. Harden, Jr., of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.:

"Projected acquisition and operating costs are higher for wingships [WIGs] than for the other methods, but their tactical and strategic speed advantages offer a unique combat capability."

...not too surprising 

Jul 14, 2007
by Lisa Zyga

Re: Speed

You're right, it's 10x the speed of cargo ships. Sorry and thanks!!

Jul 17, 2007
by Steve Levenstein
Steve Levenstein's picture

Howard Hughes... wacky or visionary?

 Maybe Howard Hughes wasn't so wacky after all... his huge 8-engine Hercules (famously known as the "Spruce Goose") may have been a pioneer - albeit unintended - of WIG technology. 

 From Wikipedia: "On the 2nd of November in 1947, with Hughes at the controls, the Hercules lifted off from the waters off Long Beach, remaining airborne 70 feet (20 m) off the water at a speed of 80 mph (130 km/h or 70 knots) for just under a mile (1.6 km). At this altitude, the plane was still experiencing ground effect and some critics believe it lacked the power necessary to climb above ground effect." 

Jul 28, 2007
by Anonymous (not verified)

Not very logical yet

18 inches above the waters surface is not too good. If the plane got into even just slightly rough waters; the waves of the ocean can easily get above 18 inches. I could see it slamming nose first into a wave. The ground effects won't react quickly enough.

Aug 4, 2007
by Anonymous (not verified)

Ground Effect

Wings traveling close to the water (or ground) feel an extra lift by a cushion of air compressed underneath them.

Actually, ground effect doesn't have anything to do with compressed air. It's a result of the loss of induced drag (drag created as a byproduct of lift) when aircraft are flying low to the ground.

Aug 4, 2007
by Collier Hageman (not verified)

None of these are new. I

None of these are new. I was reading about these in Popular Science when I was a kid in the 70's -- and the exact same pictures accompanied the articles.

Aug 6, 2007
by Anonymous (not verified)

grou nd effect can't be a loss of induced drag...

How can the ground effect be a loss of induced drag when pilots are creating more induced drag when landing by extending the flaps of an airplane?

Apr 25, 2008
by Anonymous

Darn cool...

If they ever build these for commercial use such as transporting passengers, I'm not sure if I'd be in line to buy a ticket... but that's just me.

May 11, 2008
by Anonymous

giant flying boats of worldwar II

The nazis had giant flying boats in 1938 and howard huges verson the H4 was only a prototype and never saw masse production.The 361 air wing allied force blew up the last giant nazis flying boat by 1942.Metal was running out and radar was being used so the US goverment commissioned the prototype in pressed wood.CHURUBUSCO was howard hughes and walt disney commissed by the US president to overcome the SS euro big screen blockage in 1938.The H4 was nothing new and was built to order of the US goverment.Howard Hughes had become more powerful than the goverment thus the suits took him to court,also he went after the mob with the scarface movie and BIG AL went to jail fo life-howard hughes went into hidding there after.Digiatl satellite and computers in 1964-no howard hughes was NOT crazy he was to powerful and ahead of his time so the goose was a kicking post but Now one of the only giant flying boats of WW II to servive- anti-radar wood under the radar and howard hughes had nuclear air to air missiles in 1942(GAR) they were to be used on the SS aircraft.Howard Hughes SR had 73 inventions at the time of his death in 1924,howard hughes JR has endless inventions while alive in space remote controlled craft and wireless communications including geosyn satellite net and digital computers hardware controls interactive radar lazer radar missisles copters medical HHMI still ongoing with billions in tow.No howard Hughes was covered up like tesla and armstrong both great inventors of thier times.Howard Hughes invented the space age we live in deep space and moon shot would have never happened without howard hughes.Glomar and the hollywood sign land-all howard hughes`s and all ripped off and even jean peters was a studio JANE for studio STAN Hughe but not a hughes`s even his kid`s are covered up and killed off.Billions would be trillions and satellites are to owned by the many not the ONE(howard hughes).

May 11, 2008
by Anonymous

refractional lift

Just as a copter forces down air for lift so does a landing wingcraft force down a refractional lift factor.Water has a better lift fraction as a liq gives better glide than a solid,just as the birds do over water so did man fly.Most all modern fight is bird based so how modern is modern fight?.It is said they are working to built a aircraft that flys like a fly-now that would be modern.

May 11, 2008
by Anonymous

Howard Hughes`s inventions

Of all of howard hughes`s inventions the only one hollywood has programmed everyone to remember is the H-4 which was out dated before it was built due to the order- not the builder,Hughe`s aircraft was given the order-he could`nt just built any old plane he wanted to build and he had built at few at this point in time.His H-1 was built into the hellcat and zero by everyone-no wonder he went into hidding.His AH-64 and copters are still in being used.He pioneered high resolution imaging,geosyn satellite,digital computers,infrared imageing,thermal detection,in fight programable radar signal processing,aircraft digital computers,radar guided missiles,radar lasers,hardwire controls.optical fiber and hughes`s GBS satellite service is still on of the largest satellite NEts in the world,30 billion for patents at 3D movies which hollywood studios would`nt produce( Frence line) which is still shown in art house theaters in hollywood.CHRUBUSCO estudios which was walt disney howard hughes real dream team.The SS blocked american films in euro so the president had howard hughes built the studio in mexico and it is still the largest studio in mexico since 1938.Hollywood has hidden history as they did with armstrong and tesla and they now have and own everything howard hughes built.By- Howard Robard Hughes ____ snells law, the knife adge effect,huygens-fresnel principle,wave propagation and wave phenomena,Howard Hughes knew how to fly the H-4,H-1 and XF-11 that was screwed with,they had to stop him some how and stop him and his hidden kid`s they did and take every last invention they did jsu as they did to tesla dn armstrong all inventors of of everyday life today.Howard Hughes radar, airplane computer,retractible landing gear,hydralic aircraft controls hardwire controls,remote wireless controls.moon lander,deep space craft-you name it he had it built to order.But what do I know? I`am a hughes`s.

May 11, 2008
by Anonymous

Ground effect

Many factors account for the ground effect but all one has to do is watch a pelican fly to see that lift factors are not the same over water as on land.Snells law is the major factor as when you extend the flaps you trap more air under the wings-induced drag factors are not the major factor as you need air on both side of the wings and being near the ground you still must have on both side of the wings anyway.Refraction air(FLAPS) or air brakes forces the back of the wings up which extends fight.On take off you must force air under the wings by forcing the front of the wings up-so you force air under the wings in both cases by using the flaps.Drag factors change more with wing angle than with flaps but flaps do extend ot shorten the wings.Try a power off stall and see how much drag you have while falling or even a power on stall you will still fall all the way to the ground if you don`t force air under your wings and flaps but drag will still be with you where ever you go.Induced drag would be like a copter trying to go forward and upward allways.Carther copter works much better with wings and air driven main rotor plus pusher turbo prop.You`ll never see a pelican fly near the ground but you will see it fly near the water which give more lift same as howard hughes learned form watching little birdies.He did`nt have to fly it he payed more for it than they payed him to built if(H-4) but he knew it would fly because he had flown many air plane boats in his day and he owned many of them-he liked to live near the water and he didn`t like airports.